Two of Europe's less-fancied sides meet in Manchester on Wednesday evening in the UEFA Cup final. For the neutral, it's a mere appetiser before next week's grand banquet of a UEFA Champions League final, but for fans of those teams - or even the countries - involved, it's a major occasion.
Even the neutral would be advised to watch what is set to be a fascinating clash of cultures, strategies and players at Eastlands...
Head To Head
The uninitiated might have looked at the semi-final draw for the UEFA Cup and thought that it was a foregone conclusion. Fiorentina and Bayern München, after all, were favourites for their respective ties.
Not so. Rangers put in a defensive showing to oust the Italians, while an utterly mesmerising display of the art of the counter-attack saw Zenit through against Bayern.
These two approaches now go head to head, with Gers boss Walter Smith hoping that his tactics and his men will stand firm against Dick Advocaat's more cavalier style of play.
From Russian With Love
It's a particularly big occasion for Advocaat as his current side face one of his old flames. The Dutch master spent four years at Ibrox, leading Rangers to two leagues titles, as well as a scattering of domestic trophies. There was a small amount of European success under his style, too, but towards the end of his tenure personality clashes and staleness - as well as a few disastrous signings - dampened his reputation.
Nonetheless, he generally did well at Rangers, and apparently felt close enough to the side that during the darkest days of Alex McLeish's reign, he allegedly phoned the club (or club chairman David Murray phoned him - he left this playfully ambiguous) to offer his services on a temporary basis.
That was after his time with South Korea, which proved to be just another whistle-stop as he went through three jobs in two years. Indeed, since his days as Netherlands national team boss, he found it hard to settle down - until he arrived at Zenit.
He now appears to be well-situated in St. Petersburg, where in his first campaign Zenit finished a decent fourth. 2007, though, was a wonderful season in which they won their first ever League title. 2008 has kicked off in dire fashion, with just one win in six games so far, although their season has been put on hiatus to allow them to warm up for this encounter.
Still, the Russians have excelled themselves in Europe this season, with the suspended Pogrebnyak and the wonderful Arshavin often at the centre of things. They'll hope that, even if the RPL isn't working out, this can be their big European breakthrough season.
As for the fans, few are expected to make the journey from the frozen north, but those that do will be as loud as ever. On that note, they have been instructed by UEFA not to let themselves down with racist chanting, which has been a problem in this campaign.
North Of The Border
Rangers, meanwhile, could not have had a more different month. While Zenit have taken some time off to prepare for the match, the Gers are involved in an exhausting run-in full of league, cup and European fixtures. The debate rages on back in Scotland as to whether or not the Glasgow side should be accommodated in domestic competition to lessen the load at the business end of the season, but on Wednesday night all talk of tiredness and aching bones must be put aside ahead of kick-off.
Then again, such rigours could be a blessing in disguise. While injury and fitness concerns are still paramount, Rangers will look to draw from the Scottish example: the national side tended to perform better during hectic fixture scheduling than when their players were given time off league matches in which to rest.
Either way, Rangers are looking for their first European trophy since that 1972 European Cup Winners' Cup win. They were unable to defend their trophy the following year due to their fans' conduct, but victory in the UEFA Cup of 2008 would surely make up for that.
They're not 'defending' a trophy this time, but they've certainly defended their way here. Love it or hate it, there is no doubting that Walter Smith's brand of no-holds-barred, men-behind-the-ball football has worked. Werder Bremen and Sporting Lisbon both fell foul of this approach, while Fiorentina were the latest victims on penalties. It's Rangers' first European final in decades, and the first for a Scottish club since Celtic reached this competition's last match in 2003. The Hoops lost out to Porto: Rangers will, of course, seek to get one over on their eternal rivals here.
News source: Goal.com
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